New York draws international travelers with the towering skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan and the weathered copper of Lady Liberty. The siren song of Hollywood beckons vacationers to the streets of Los Angeles. San Francisco draws millions of visitors every year to experience the iconic west coast city and ride the classic cable cars through its hilly urban scape. Constructed in the 1800’s to relieve horses from hauling cargo up the steep hills of the city, the 19th century charm of the public transportation also brings safety concerns of 200-year old technology. Since 2003, 126 accidents injured 151 people, costing the city millions of dollars in liability claims. In three years the attraction cost more than $8 million in settlements.
NBC News cites the Department of Transportation’s claim that, “cable cars average about an accident per month and routinely rank among the most accident prone mass transportation modes in the country per vehicle mile traveled.” Riders are permitted to hang off the sides of the cable cars, which was fine in the 19th century, however, parked cars and passing vehicles pose a greater threat than the original designers anticipated. Riders struck with passing vehicles suffered injuries ranging in broken bones and lacerations to amputated limbs. With such a high risk of injury and liability for the city, what keeps these cars running with such regularity for the public?
San Francisco Travel provides financial data for tourism in the city, showing San Francisco pulls in $8.93 billion annually from visitors. Of that the city government directly benefits from $562 million in tax and fee revenue each year. The total liability of the cable cars represents less than half a percent of the income from tourism, meaning the cable cars endures a nominal fee in claims to keep San Francisco’s iconic draw to tourists flowing.
San Francisco’s Mayor, Ed Lee, offers, “The iconic cable cars of San Francisco are a National Historical Landmark and we will work everyday to make them safer. While accidents and injuries are down from just a few years ago, we are always working to improve the system as a whole.”